Wednesday, 15 December 2010


At the back of the cupboard

In a moment of madness in the supermarket a little while ago I bought some dried figs. Husband Steve is a fan of all manner of dried fruit including dates, and perhaps I thought a gritty pippy dried fig would give him some pleasurable mastication. Or maybe I was thinking of my bowels, whilst forgetting that I do not enjoy eating figs, fresh or dried. Checking my cupboard it seems that I have been collecting an assortment of food I feel is worthy and/or find attractive. Still, on both fronts the figs have a lot to offer. Their benefit to digestion is legion. Laid out, their saggy, powdery and striated exterior still appeals. I am aware of, but choose to overlook, their resemblance to heavily talc’d and withered breasts in repose, and on reflection this may be a charitable act anticipating I may soon be the owner of same, sans repose and more likely untalc’d. And not, I hope, stored at the back of my kitchen cupboard with other unused dry goods.

As it happens, amongst other items I need to gather around me is a range of tinned fish, mostly sardines and anchovies. Unlike their more popular friend tuna, or as the Americans call it ‘chicken of the sea’, most have retained the alluring style of early packaging. I won’t go on about the variety of sauces sardines may come with, I know I’m unlikely to eat them. However I remain optimistic about managing to consume anchovies, unrealistically so it seems, as I found several cans cozying up to the figs.

I was looking for something interesting to make and turned to a family kitchen bible, La veritable cuisine Provencale by Paul Escudier*. The index is complex, and it’s wise to know your abats from your gibiers. Plumping for the hors d’oeuvres section, I found this recipe. I could have just opened the book, as it is one of the first. I might have got distracted and settled down to read through more, but was stopped in my tracks by the word poutargue. This brought back memories of my father best forgotten. He returned to me as the moustachioed culinary fascist of old. When he put faith something or someone it was unwaverable, and hero Escudier recommends poutargue. You may be familiar with blachan, a shrimp paste used in oriental cooking, and if you are you know what it smells like, and it’s a smell you might think should not be in a kitchen. Poutargue is pressed and preserved cod roe, and its smell is similar to blachan. I have never seen anyone spreading blachan on toast and nibbling on it while swigging a welcome glass. Poutargue should, as far as I’m concerned, be treated with equal care, and if it enters a kitchen it should be kept only as a warning.

The poutargue I remember was sealed in a dull yellow wax, resembling a poor attempt at a joke gold bar. It looked like it might have been released from a long sealed tomb. In fact I believe it is thought to be something the ancient Greeks liked to eat. As the seal was broken a low level deadening stench crept quietly from it. Inside - dark matter, which can be grated or shaved and eaten if you must. Since we were obliged to try everything once, and it was worth saving resistance for things you were certain were appalling, I tried it. All moisture was sucked into the shaving placed on my tongue, livening up the intense, repellent flavour. Spitting out food was not permitted, and although I was ready to dispute its nutritional status swallowing seemed the simplest approach. I’m not sure you can digest poutargue. The memory still makes me shudder.

Despite Escudier recommending poutargue and providing many recipes for tripe this Anchoiade is a winner – and there are no fish eggs, preserved or otherwise, in it.

In the traditional manner, this is not exactly as written by Escudier.

Anchoiade de Croce

12 plump peeled almonds
3 lovely dried figs (stalks removed)
two tins of anchovies in virgin olive oil
half a small red chilli (seeded)
3 peeled cloves garlic
juice of one lemon
generous handful of chopped parsley
two pinches of herbes de provence

extra fruity olive oil to enrich or garnish


For enthusiasts

For those in a hurry
Drain the anchovies, saving the olive oil.

Roughly chop the chilli, anchovies and almonds. Put them all in a mortar and pound together until you make a thick paste.

Roughly chop the figs, add to the mortar and pound to a paste with the other ingredients. If the mixture becomes too stiff add a little olive oil from the anchovies.

Finely chop the parsley and mix in with the other ingredients, together with any remaining olive oil from the anchovies.

Keep stirring, adding lemon juice to taste.

Serve on toast.
Put all the ingredients in a food processor.
Blend on pulse until you have a paste.

Serve on toast.

Escudier recommends a blend of tinned and salted anchovies. I am not a great hunter for ingredients and couldn’t find anything locally, and never mind the air miles and carbon footprint, I wasn’t about to hop on a plane or even catch a bus or tube to the West End. So, again in the traditional manner, I just made it with what I had to hand.

There is, as you know, no accounting for taste. Having thought I’d found a gem I recently served it at my mother’s wake, as a tribute to my mother’s dedication to adventurous cooking and a supplement to the feast provided by one of my sisters. My sister did not seem to think it remarkable. She thought it too garlicky. Perhaps she protested too much, clearly we were all under stress and she had worked hard to make an impressive spread later followed by a marvellous carbonnade. Since she is a purist, curing her own sausage meat, it’s possible I met with disapproval for my other contribution: baba ghanoush from a tin. Perhaps you might not fancy the idea of it.

Anchoiade de Croce

12 plump peeled almonds
3 lovely dried figs (stalks removed)
2 tins of anchovies in virgin olive oil
½ a small red chilli (deseeded)
3 peeled cloves garlic
1 lemon - juice
1 generous handful of chopped parsley
2 pinches of herbes de provence
1 stsp of orange flower water

extra fruity olive oil to enrich or garnish

* printed in English

# Poutargue or botargue is still available and recommended by some. It is also called  l'Avgotaharos in Greece and Bottargo in Italy. Don’t let me stop you trying some. I may even try some myself at some point. After all, I’ve never been that keen on truffles either.

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